He saw Facebook grow from a dorm room project to a $500-billion-plus company used by billions of people worldwide. Now, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is calling for regulators to break up the social media giant, which he calls a “powerful monopoly, eclipsing all of its rivals and erasing competition.”
“It’s been 15 years since I co-founded Facebook at Harvard, and I haven’t worked at the company in a decade,” writes Hughes in a New York Times op-ed published May 9. “But I feel a sense of anger and responsibility.”
Hughes’ essay is largely focused on CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose “personal reputation and the reputation of Facebook have taken a nose-dive” in recent years, he writes. Hughes lists a number of what he considers to be the firm’s “mistakes,” including a “slow response to Russian agents, violent rhetoric and fake news; and the unbounded drive to capture ever more of our time and attention.”
In Hughes’ view, Zuckerberg’s level of control over speech is “unilateral”, “problematic”, “unprecedented” and “un-American.” “He sets the rules of how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive,” Hughes wrote, adding that Facebook’s staff, himself included, should have thought more about how the News Feed algorithm could “change our culture, influence ectoplasm and empower elections and empower nationalist leaders.”
Zuckerberg’s focus on Facebook’s “growth” has caused him to “sacrifice security and civility for clicks,” Hughes added.
Later in the essay, Hughes turns from criticizing Zuckerberg to calling for regulators to break up Facebook, much the same way AT&T was broken up in the 1980s. Hughes argues that Facebook’s acquisitions of rivals Instagram and WhatsApp should be undone, and that the company should be temporarily blocked from making future mergers. He says that, while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should have blocked those big-ticket mergers in the first place, “it’s not too late to act.”
“Imagine a competitive market in which they could choose among one network that offered higher privacy standards, another that cost a fee to join but had little advertising and another that would allow users to customize and tweak their feeds as they saw fit,” Hughes writes. “No one knows exactly what Facebook’s competitors would offer to differentiate themselves. That’s exactly the point.”
Hughes acknowledges that some may criticize him for profiting off Facebook’s massive success, only to turn around and critique the company when he’s already wealthy.
“Don Graham, a former Facebook board member, has accused those who criticize the company now as having ‘all the courage of the last man leaping on the pile at a football game,'” Hughes writes. “The financial rewards I reaped from working at Facebook radically changed the trajectory of my life, and even after I cashed out, I watched in awe as the company grew. It took the 2016 election fallout and Cambridge Analytica to awaken me to the dangers of Facebook’s monopoly. But anyone suggesting that Facebook is akin to a pinned football player misrepresents its resilience and power.”
Hughes’ essay comes as some presidential candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, have also called for Facebook and other tech giants to be broken up or more strongly regulated. “To restore the balance of power in our democracy, to promote competition, and to ensure that the next generation of technology innovation is as vibrant as the last, it’s time to break up our biggest tech companies,” Warren said in March.
“The alternative is bleak,” Hughes writes. “If we do not take action, Facebook’s monopoly will become even more entrenched. With much of the world’s personal communications in hand, it can mine that data for patterns and trends, giving it an advantage over competitors for decades to come.”